Virtual lunches for the win

In March, monthly staff lunches at Just Neighbors in Annandale, Va. started looking different for the tightknit team. Like hundreds of other nonprofits, Just Neighbors was forced to transition its work to a remote platform to help combat COVID-19. As they settled into their newfound routines, they decided to host virtual lunches in lieu of eating lunch together, in-person. This was a big change for the agency, “it was common for staff to eat lunch together and often,” said Executive Director Erin McKenney. 

As the weeks turned into months, unfortunately staff had to miss some lunches due to conflicting schedules. Staff attorneys and assistants had to seize any moment a client was available to video chat or switch out, one of the many hats they wear, to support their children during virtual learning. Yet staff enjoyed attending the lunches whenever they could. McKenney knew her staff were not the only ones juggling multiple tasks. What started as a unique and creative way to foster inter-staff connectivity during these challenging times, became a broadened invitation to the community. Despite the inability to meet in-person, Just Neighbors found a way to continue building connections. 

The virtual lunches occur every couple of weeks, so it is common to get a variety of community members each time. While clients are invited — volunteers, funders and board members are the usual attendees. During the hour, participants engage in casual conversation and receive updates on various topics. While McKenney prepares a list of topics to discuss, conversations tend to flow freely.

I had the opportunity to join Just Neighbors for one of their July lunches, right after they merged with the DC-MD Justice for Our Neighbors office, or DC-MD JFON. Both organizations are part of the National Justice for Our Neighbors’ network. I was welcomed with smiles, and the conversations began without missing a beat. 

The first question focused on the recent merger. McKenney explained the process and their excitement to join forces with DC-MD JFON to serve the greater Washington Metropolitan area. This led to staff sharing their experiences in balancing work and life within the comfort of their homes. The staff attorneys released a sigh of relief knowing that others were also experiencing similar challenges. McKenny went on to explain the importance of their work, needed now more than ever, with new guidelines and policy changes implemented by the Trump administration. Board members in attendance expressed their appreciation and heartfelt thanks. Afterward, one of the volunteers took the opportunity to ask for a case update that she previously worked on. Receiving good news, she threw her hands in the air and cheered with joy. “People have a craving to stay engaged during these times and these lunches are one way we can continue to do that,” said McKenney.

Inspired by the Virginia program, National JFON held a virtual lunch, registering up to 100 participants for the first event. With so many participants, it was challenging for staff and attendees to engage in a more personable matter, explained Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown. When they hosted their second virtual event, they capped it at 25 registrants to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to participate in the conversation. I was able to attend one of these virtual lunches with National JFON and had a very similar experience. New, smiling faces greeted me as the conversations flowed so effortlessly.

The dedication of staff and volunteers at Just Neighbors and Justice for Our Neighbors brought me great happiness, especially during a time when one might begin to feel burned out and pessimistic of the future for immigration law. Yet, regardless of circumstances, it is important to celebrate all kinds of victories, no matter how minor. Any agency’s work to promote immigrant integration cannot be accomplished if staff do not feel connected to each other and their community. 

CLINIC applauds Just Neighbors and JFON National for their creative efforts to remain engaged and committed to their communities. Share with us how you are engaging with your community during COVID-19.